As the 2018 NFL Draft declaration window closed in, there was some conversation surrounding Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards, who was reportedly flirting with the decision to come out. When Edwards announced he was returning for the 2018 college football season, it was assumed that he would lead the pack of Big Ten Linebackers eligible for the 2019 draft.
To quote the great Lee Corso: “Not so fast!”
There are several gifted LBs in this year’s Big Ten landscape, including several young stars who could be high priorities in the draft.
With a full season left to play, plenty can (and will) change for these Big Ten Linebackers and their resumes for the next level. Some may not even enter the 2019 NFL Draft prospect pool, as several have more than one remaining year of eligibility. But as things stand entering the season, here are the five best draft eligible Big Ten Linebackers.
1. Paddy Fisher, Northwestern
Let’s start with this thought: Paddy Fisher is a stud. The 2017 redshirt freshman was the best defensive player on the field for the Wildcats last year, showing maturity and savviness beyond his years.
That maturity is both mental and physical (Fisher is a listed 6-foot-4, 245 pounds) and can be pointed to as a key part of Fisher’s success. Disciplined in pass coverage and quick to process between the tackles, Fisher is a redshirt senior wrapped inside a redshirt sophomore’s body.
Most exciting about Fisher is his physical play between the tackles. He’s a player fully capable of playing through or around defenders as needed.
A riser lying in wait, Fisher’s redshirt freshman film was some of the best defensive play we saw in the Big Ten last year, regardless of position.
Needs to improve: Hip mobility
2. Tuf Borland, Ohio State
Another redshirt sophomore, Borland spurned being a second generation Badger by signing with the Buckeyes back in 2016. As a first year letterman last year, Borland came on strong throughout the season, wrestling away a starting job en route to being a base MIKE linebacker for the Buckeyes front.
Borland did lose some third down snaps to sub-packages, but there’s little reason to doubt Borland can’t be a three down fixture thanks to his athletic abilities and heady play. Lightning quick off his platform, Borland is quick to shoot gaps and beat offensive linemen to the spot as a run defender.
Borland, who logged 12 tackles against Army in Week 3 last year (highest total for a Buckeye freshman LB since Ryan Shazier had 15 vs. Penn State in 2011), impresses with his anticipation and play recognition between the tackles.
Coming off a spring Achilles injury, health is the primary concern for Borland. But all reports point to him manning the middle for Ohio State this season.
Needs to improve: Stacking blockers in the box
3. Devin Bush Jr, Michigan
Bush possesses wonderful range for a second level linebacker. Size is a concern, as Bush is listed at only 5-foot-11 and 222 pounds. But with that compact frame comes explosiveness, both in the way of speed and hitting power.
In a perfect world, Bush would show notable improvement in his reps challenging offensive linemen in 2018. Too often wiped out of plays once contacted on the second level, Bush must be more comfortable in the phone booth.
Yet as a blitzer and a space defender, there’s little stopping Bush in his pursuit to the football. He’s impressive on the hoof and shows short area quickness that makes him a headache to stay in front of.
Needs to improve: Functional strength
4. Joe Bachie Jr, Michigan State
Bachie Jr. has one heck of a nose for the football. With 100+ tackles, three interceptions and multiple forced fumbles last year, Bachie made his presence felt on the Spartan defense.
That said, Bachie is a bit stiff for a 6-foot-2, 230 pound linebacker. Ideally he’d unlock some added him mobility to add a different dynamic to his zone drops in coverage. Regardless, Bachie is decisive between the tackles and quick to fly into the play.
That aggressiveness can betray him in some instances, as Bachie’s biggest area of growth is improving his contact balance as a one on one tackler.
Needs to improve: Coming to balance prior to tackles
5. T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin
Last January, Edwards was considered by some to be a mid-round target. But the more time that’s spent combing over Edwards’ film, it’s difficult to see him having the ceiling of some of his colleagues at the position. Edwards is a hammer between the tackles. With heavy hitting pads and a thick frame, there’s ample pop to Edwards’ game.
But when tasked with playing laterally, Edwards doesn’t offer the same appeal. I’m not sold on Edwards’ lateral range or his ability to play sideline to sideline in the middle. And at 6-foot-1 and 240+ pounds, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for Edwards to mold his game. If Edwards were to shed some weight, it may open up his range to some degree, but that flies in the face of where he’s best now.
Needs to improve: Lateral mobility